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You asked, and I’m going to do my best to answer a difficult question. What does it feel like to have a mental illness? Whew, okay, let me take a deep breath and…

I don’t know what to say right now. My mind is blank except for the hum of anxiety that I can’t control. It bounces around my mind as if it’s weightless. It feels like it’s living in an empty space. There’s no light from a lamp or an open window. It’s completely dark in there. Pitch black, quiet, and, now that I think about it, I don’t know if any sound can penetrate the thick walls of the cavern.

It’s the kind of space where a scream can’t be heard. It doesn’t matter how loud, high-pitched, or fervidly it is. The cry is swallowed and silenced. The same could be said about a laugh or a squeal of delight. Happiness and sadness disappear into this vacuous space. It’s everything, and it’s nothing.

Except, for that ball of anxiety that bounces off the walls. It gets caught up in a swirling frenzy. The stillness is broken up by a cold breath that ripples through the darkness. There’s a shiver, the ball shudders, and for a moment, it’s suspended in the air.

Is this it? Did the chill finally freeze it in place? Is it over?

Or it’s biding its time and making a choice. Should it resume its meandering? Is it too tired to keep going? Is it giving me a break because it senses my level of exhaustion? Will it finally fall away and disappear? Decisions. Decisions. But is it really? 

Just when I think it’s finally over and one good tap will shatter it into pieces? It shakes off the chill and continues its aimless, relentless routine. Bouncing. Swirling. Growing. Shrinking.

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Its size changes, and so does its shape. Sometimes it’s a tiny, plastic ping pong ball that someone bought at the dollar store. It’s cheap and flimsy. It doesn’t have much of a punch, but when it touches the sides of the cavern, you know it’s there. It can sting a little, but it’s a nuisance. One good shake of the head, and it’s swatted away.

Other times, it grows exponentially, and it becomes a living creature with arms, legs, and claw-like nails at the end of boney fingers. Its teeth are razor sharp. Its smile is cold, and it foams at the mouth like a rabid beast. It’s ravenous. Feed me. Feed me! All of your concerns, insecurities, and doubts are edible treats. It devours them, and they make it stronger.

It doesn’t matter how small or trivial the worry. If it’s there, it’s fair game, and it will find it hiding in the darkness. When it finds it? It latches on and gnaws at it. It slashes, draws blood, and drinks it all in. That small problem, the what if’s you’ve been ignoring, are now incurable wounds that have become infected.

It’s a gruesome image, and I hope you’re not eating while you’re reading this. Sorry, I should’ve put a warning up sooner. However, I was asked a question, and this is the best description I’ve got right now. It’s what I’m struggling with at the moment. This is how I’m feeling in all its gory detail.

The emptiness, darkness, and the ever-changing entity that floats around in the cavern. It comes and goes. Sometimes it’s a low-level annoyance. Other times, it’s a monster, and I’m its prey. It’s inside of me, but it’s separate from me. It’s the thing I argue with, and we fight for control. 

A battle of wills?

Not long ago, someone asked me what it feels like to have anxiety, depression, or any mental illness. Yeah, that’s a big question with a complex answer. The feelings change. The sensations affect me differently depending on many factors. How do I describe it? I’m not sure I’ve done it justice.

I’ve done my best to describe one aspect of it. Anxiety is, for me, the easiest to put into words at the moment. It’s the one emotion I’m feeling that I can actually identify clearly. Which is another aspect most people don’t understand. Sometimes, having a mental illness means an absence of emotion rather than an abundance of it.

Or, more accurately, there are too many feelings bleeding together. It’s overwhelming and exhausting. How can one person feel so many things at once? Is it possible? For some, sure, but I often find myself turning off and becoming completely numb.

I don’t feel sad, angry, happy…What are some other feeling words? I’m so numb, I can’t even identify the typical emotions most people experience. My brain feels empty, dark, and lonely. Imagine you’re standing on the moon all alone. Weightless, floating from one spot to another. The earth is right in front of you, and you can see life being lived, but you’re separated from it.

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To be more precise, you’re 384,400 kilometres away. Google is handy, isn’t it? All of that empty space stands between you, and the life you want to live. You’re floating out there, trying to get back so you can live again, but you’re stuck. Numb, but there’s a sense of desperation, anxiety, and… Damn, I really should look up some more feeling words.

I’ve struggled with my mental health for most of my life. I don’t remember when I last felt normal or experienced life without these filters. And that’s what they are, filters. They obscure reality. Instead of making an image more beautiful or clear? They distort the picture and add a haziness.  

What’s real? What am I feeling? Is it really that bad, or did the ping pong ball morph into a gremlin? I spend a lot of time asking, is this real, or is my brain interpreting the data wrong? Can I trust my feelings, or am I on the moon again?

I really like the term neurodivergent. It’s a relatively new term to the mainstream, and it has been getting a lot of airtime lately. It’s a more accurate description than anything else I’ve heard. My brain doesn’t function like it should because it’s been rewired by childhood trauma. It’s like my computer was hacked, a virus was installed, and it completely rewrote my programming.

While I’m not ashamed to say that I have a mental illness, it does come with stigma and misunderstandings. It’s treated as a personal failing, a character flaw, but it’s structural damage. My brain was rewired at a young age. I was diagnosed with chronic renal failure when I was three. I watched someone die shortly after, and that was the first of many.

I’ve been cut open with and without an anesthetic. My body was treated as a science experiment. Yes, I know, they were trying to save my life, but my body wasn’t my own. I had no control over what happened to me, and I couldn’t protect myself. The pain was relentless at times, and if that doesn’t f**k with your mind? Well, you’re superhuman.

Science has shown that trauma, especially at a young age, changes the structure of the brain. It severs connections and creates new ones. There’s a physiological change that occurs, and that’s kinda cool; In a weird and macabre way. So, when someone tells you they have a mental illness, what they’re saying is their brain has been twisted so much it’s diverged from the standard.

There’s something special about connected with people who struggle and face similar challenges. We create a community out of a shared experience. That takes the loneliness and stigma out of something that’s often kept in the dark.

Think of it like someone who’s had a brain injury. In my case, the mechanism of injury was physical and emotional trauma. The result is a collection of neurodivergent functions. I’ve been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress, anxiety, ADHD, depression, and OCD tendencies. 

My brain is a barrel full of monkeys, but I’m trying to train them to behave. Perhaps, I can teach them a few tricks, and we can take the show on the road. A carnival of madness, if you will. Wouldn’t that be a sight to behold? Or, you know, we could leave the freak show in the past where it belongs.

Did I just call myself a freak? Weird, I usually have better self-talk than that. Just kidding, I’ve called myself a lot worse. Those monkeys can be frisky little bastards.

So, did I answer the question? Do you have a vague idea of what it feels like to have these critters in my brain? Is it the same for everyone? Is it okay to ask these questions, or is it crossing a line? 

Personally, I don’t mind the questions. I’m pretty open about my struggles on this platform. After a lifetime of trauma, fighting my inner demons, and making peace with some of the monkeys in my brain, I find comfort in honesty and openness. There’s something special about connected with people who struggle and face similar challenges. We create a community out of a shared experience. That takes the loneliness and stigma out of something that’s often kept in the dark.

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For me, and this is just me, speaking about my struggles helps me own them instead of letting them control me. I open up and share my perspective so that maybe someone who can’t be as open will know that they aren’t alone. But this is my perspective, my story, and not everyone will feel the same way.

Not everyone who experiences a mental illness or is neurodivergent will experience it the same way either. Just like any physical ailment, there will be some similarities in our symptoms. There will also be wild variations. We’re all different. What brought us to this point will be as varied as the human experience.

This is my attempt at answering this question, and it’s based on my experiences. That’s all I’m qualified to talk about, but I hope it leads to more understand. A little more compassion, empathy, and patience would be welcome. Let’s end the stigma and get rid of the shame.

We’re all doing the best we can with whatever monkey’s that are jumping around in our heads.

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